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New Union President Shares Stories and Describes Goals


Vinita Sauder left a long career at Southern to lead Nebraska’s Union College, beginning this school year. In an exclusive interview with Spectrum, she talks about Union’s strengths and challenges, what she believes makes a good leader and memorable student and staff anecdotes.

Question: Congratulations on your appointment as the president of Union College. You began your job this past summer. What have you found the most exciting and inspiring about Union so far? What has surprised you?

Answer: I have enjoyed the first six months in this new role immensely. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that Union’s signature programs of Physician Assistant studies, International Rescue and Relief, Biomedical Science, and Nursing draw students from across the country. When meeting with parents of freshmen students, I’ve discovered that Union is a destination of choice for these programs because they are unique, affordable, offer practical experience through internships and practicums, and lead to good jobs upon graduation.

Here’s what’s inspiring: Families tell me they choose Union because our faculty and staff create an environment much like their own family. Even Friday night vespers is called “Family Worship,” and faculty and staff open their homes regularly for students to visit. For instance, longtime Union staff member Buell Fogg, and his wife, Kathy, open their home every Friday evening after Family Worship. Often more than 100 students show up to sample Kathy’s unending supply of amazing, home-baked cinnamon buns.

Another staff member recently informed me that it’s his job to know every student by name. Visitors and prospective students tell me about this unusual welcoming, accepting, and loving atmosphere at Union. I am glad to be a part of this family.

I’ve also found it remarkable that Union’s students are allowed to really lead here — which creates an empowering environment. The campus ministries programs are all entirely student led, which is very extraordinary. I saw this first-hand when asked to speak for the first chapel of the school year. Madison Wagnaar, a business major and the chapel coordinator, met with me ahead of time to make sure I had everything I needed, prayed with me before the service, and sent me a card afterward to thank me for speaking.

Students initiate service projects as well. When some of our physician assistant students volunteered at a local free clinic and saw the great need for additional funding, they organized an annual 5k run two years ago and have raised several thousand dollars for the clinic.

Our tagline “experience the spirit” really describes Union’s environment and students, and this really inspires me. I receive a blessing each day I come to work.

Question: What have you concentrated most of your time and energy on so far?

Answer: Getting to know a new place takes time, but it’s what makes a new job so exciting. I have enjoyed getting to know the people, the history and the traditions that make Union a special place.

I have also been working with the leadership team to prioritize and implement the goals set forth by Union’s strategic planning committee.

Question: What are your plans and goals for Union? What would you like to accomplish that, if successful, would “change the game” in some significant way? What could the university do better?

Answer: Union has been laying plans for growth for many years and now has a new flagship science building and renovated facilities for growing programs. I have the privilege of helping to prioritize our strategic goals and to implement ways to realize those goals.

Specifically, we are creating new academic programs and partnerships to prepare our graduates for additional in-demand careers. We’re also revamping our scholarship program to provide more opportunity and accessibility to students.

We’re updating our campus facilities plan as well, and are working to identify new or renovated facilities, which will improve the student experience, enrich the learning and residential environment, and also provide room for new academic programs.

We may have some “game changers” in the works, but you’ll have to stay tuned to learn more down the road.

Question: What have you found to be the most challenging thing about the job up until now?

Answer: I need more hours in a day! There is so much to learn and do that I run out of time every day, but that’s the nature of the job. I’ve learned that if I come in early every day and start with prayer and devotion, I am much better able to tackle the challenges and opportunities each day presents. I love what I do, and I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing students grow, find their calling, and develop their passion and strengths. There’s nothing more energizing than to work with gifted young people on fire for serving God now and in their future careers.

Question: What makes Union distinctive? Do you feel the campus, the students or the professors are unique in some way? 

Answer: Andrew Corbin is not a Seventh-day Adventist, but the long-time Lincoln resident chose to enroll in our nursing program because of our reputation in the local community. As he was leaving a clinical at a local hospital one day, he had a high-speed collision that landed him in the hospital with injuries severe enough to keep him out of class for a while. Nursing school is quite demanding, and he feared missing classes would set him back an entire year.

Much to his surprise, several of the nursing professors came to see him throughout his hospitalization. They brought him assignments, helped him study and supported his family. Andrew graduated with his nursing class this past May and credits his success to the willingness of his teachers to go “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Natalie Bruzon grew up a Seventh-day Adventist — the daughter of missionaries. Over the years, she grew tired of watching her friends walk out the back door of the church, and sometimes even joining them.

So when Union’s 2013-14 student body president came back from a leadership retreat and asked the student senate what they could do about the problem, Natalie rose to the challenge. She led a group of students to plan a summit for young adults across North America to brainstorm ways to help the Adventist church better connect with young adults and vice versa. After partnering with Debra Brill at the North American Division and other key young adult leaders, they invited representatives from all the Adventist colleges and universities in North America to the weekend Summit held last October.

The group launched the IAmChurch social media movement and developed their findings — the beginnings of what could be a new era for young adults in the Adventist church — into a report presented to the North American Division year-end meetings by our current student body president, Debbie Pinto.

Yes, Union College offers strong academics and unique, in-demand programs, but what really sets us apart are professors who will do anything to help students succeed and students who are motivated to be a force for good in the world and in our own campus community.

Question: There are many other Adventist universities in North America, and Southwestern is only about 500 miles away. Do we as a church really need to support so many institutions?

Answer: Each Adventist college and university was originally established to serve a certain geographical region of the country. But in a time where travel is no longer an issue, each school has developed a personality and combination of academic offerings that makes it unique and appealing to different types of students.

As long as we can continue to be relevant and help students achieve their career and ministry goals, I believe each campus provides valuable service to our church and our communities. That said, as the higher education landscape changes, our colleges and universities need to seek ways to collaborate, find efficiencies and serve students more effectively by working together.

Question: Adventist colleges were started as a way of training students for service in the church. Do we still need church-trained church workers? Or church-trained church members? What do you see as the primary function of an Adventist college?

Answer: Adventist colleges were created to train church workers, but their primary goal was to train Adventist young people to be missionaries for Christ. While “being a missionary” may look different than it did 100 years ago, that goal is no less important. Our educational philosophy is to train students for their respective careers with ministry and service in mind. No matter what a graduate’s occupation, each graduate is also a minister and servant to his/her community, church, and family. Graduates of our colleges can be a force for positive change wherever God leads them.

Question: What is your current enrollment number? Is it up or down when compared to last year and recent years? 

Answer: Our full-time student headcount of both undergraduate and graduate students has grown over the last five years. Our total institutional enrollment, which includes full-time and part-time students, is 886 headcount (833 full-time equivalency) for this school year. 

Question: Where are your main recruiting efforts focused? Adventist kids at Adventist academies? Are you reaching out to Adventist students at non-Adventist schools? What about non-Adventists?

Answer: Our recruiting efforts focus primarily on Adventists in North America, both in academies and public schools. However, we also recruit here in Nebraska — especially for our Nursing and Physician Assistant programs.

While the majority of our students are Seventh-day Adventists, we tend to attract students of other faith traditions who appreciate our mission and value-added educational approach. We are very intentional about how we incorporate these students into our campus, making sure they understand our philosophy of education and environment. Most are dedicated Christians who quickly fall in love with Union, and often participate with great enthusiasm in mission trips and service outreach opportunities.

Question: I understand that you are in discussions with Southwestern and Southern about forming an alliance that could conceivably combine or share some “back office” functions to save money and improve service. Can you tell us about that?

Answer: We are, in fact, already working together to strengthen all three institutions. This school year we are offering several distance learning classes between the three schools that allow us each to offer specialized courses — taught by experts from each of the three schools — that would not be feasible to offer on our own.

For example, Dr. Malcolm Russell from Union is leading an advanced history class in World War II this spring, and students from Southern and Southwestern are enrolled in the class, which is offered in real-time on the three campuses via online technology. This saves the cost of a professor for the same course at all three institutions, and yet brings a highly qualified Adventist professor into each classroom.

We have synchronized our school calendars to help make this a reality.

In addition, we are discussing ways to enhance faculty development across all three campuses, as well as methods to cut costs by sharing some back office functions. These discussions are in their infancy since both Southwestern and Union have new presidents, but I expect more plans to emerge soon.

Question:  You left your position as vice president for strategic initiatives at Southern Adventist University to join Union. Presumably this would help in forming partnerships. How do you feel your experience at Southern helps you in your new role?

Answer: My 17 years as a vice president at Southern provided a solid preparation for my current role. I was fortunate to have had Dr. Gordon Bietz as a mentor at Southern; he is an outstanding presidential role model.

Question: You graduated from Southern in 1978 and served as part of Southern’s administration for many years, beginning in the early 1980s. Will you miss the Southern community?

Answer: I do miss my friends and colleagues at Southern, but I’m only expanding my circle of friends and colleagues at Union. While I may have moved to another location, we all work for the same purpose and mission. As long as I’m in a vibrant educational community where students realize their goals, I am happy!

Question: What do you feel are the most important attributes of a good leader? What are your strengths and weaknesses in this regard?

Answer: A good leader is a relationship builder who can build a team, and together with the team, articulate a compelling vision and enthusiastically move forward to achieve goals. I also believe a good leader constantly leans on God and demonstrates that by walking with people in their challenges and maintaining a healthy environment of grace, authenticity, Christian kindness, honesty, humility, and prayer.

I definitely have much room for growth, but that would be my aspirational description of a great leader. Thankfully, the Lord provides strength in my weakness. I ask the Him each morning to take myself out of the equation and provide me with the ability to deal with everything and everyone as Jesus would, with His grace and courage.

Question: You are one of the few women to ever lead an Adventist tertiary institution. Do you feel your gender impacts your staff or the way you do your job in any way?

Answer: I learned long ago that focusing on accomplishing goals makes gender issues disappear and levels the playing field. I’ve always approached my work that way. God gifted me with talent in administration, and with His blessing, I’ve been able to make a difference.

I was the only woman on the Southern’s President’s Cabinet for 17 years and that didn’t bother me a bit. College students expect both women and men to serve in leadership roles and they don’t get hung up on gender stereotypes. That’s a refreshing viewpoint.

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